The Politics of Nostalgia

Robert P. Jones, the former Missouri State University psychology professor who now heads the Public Religious Research Institute, looks at many of the issues that (in your observer’s view) divert the attentions of lawmakers away from solving infrastructure, education, and social problems by trying to preserve the diminishing influence of their religion in his book, The End of White Christian America.

The PRRI has identified attitudinal splits that point to an ongoing diminution in the influence of WCA that for most of this nation’s history was “the prominent cultural force.”  The survey has found 53% of Americans think our culture has gone downhill since the 1950s.  But Jones says there is a “stark cleavage” by race and religion.  Seventy-two percent of evangelicals believe in the cultural slippage.  Fifty-eight percent of mainline white Protestants and white Catholics agree.

However, fifty-nine percent of Hispanic Catholics think our culture has improved. And sixty-three percent of the growing numbers of Americans with no religious affiliation and fifty-five percent of African-American Protestants agree with them.

Jones says the latter groups will more future influence in the shaping of our country than mainline and evangelical Christians.  “For the first time in more than five decades, an appeal to a sentimental version of midcentury heartland America is not a winning political strategy,” he writes, taking a long-term view—but not a VERY long one.  He says that political movements still clinging to the “sentimental” view of midcentury America—including the Tea Party—are engaging in “the politics of nostalgia.”

Jones thinks today’s religion/politics blend began with the Republican Southern Strategy that appealed in sixties to southern Democrats upset with their party’s support of civil rights initiatives.  He recalls Richard Nixon in 1968 made a deal with Senator Strom Thurmond to stall various civil rights efforts and although the plan was short-circuited by Watergate, the alliance caught fire when former Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter became president in 1976 and many southerners hoped this born-again southern Christian Baptist Democrat would favor their agenda. But they were disappointed when he did not.  Jones thinks this disappointment on which conservative religious leaders such as Jerry Fallwell capitalized turned a Republican political strategy into a White Christian Strategy in which Republicans saw an advantage to be had.  He says the White Christian Strategy was important in putting Ronald Reagan in the White House and Reagan supported it.

He says that strategy weakened in the first decade of the present century but has found new life in the Tea Party movement.  He points to a PRRI survey that shows the Tea Party is more closely aligned with the Christian Right than it is with the Libertarians, as some of its leaders claim.  In fact, a 2013 survey showed 61% of Libertarians did not consider themselves part of the Tea Party movement and 52% of Tea Party members said they were “part of the Religious Right or Christian conservative movement.”

Jones also notes 55% of Tea Party members agree this country is a Christian nation while only 39% of the general population holds that view.  He calls the Tea Party “a late-stage expression of a White Christian America that is passing from the scene.”

He also points to research showing that seventy-three percent of the electorate in 1992, when Bill Clinton was elected, was white and Christian.  That group comprised only fifty-seven percent of the electorate twenty years later and is expected to be down two more points this year and drop to fifty-two percent in 2020. At this rate, he forecasts, 2024 will be the first election in national history in which white Christians do not cast the majority of votes.   That’s bad news for Republicans who (the surveys in the book indicate) rely on voting coalitions that are eighty percent white Christians.  By contrast, only thirty-seven percent of the voters who re-elected President Obama four years ago were white Christians.

In short, he infers, the Republican coalition faces a dim future.  One factor that he has identified facing Republicans is the religiously unaffiliated population—young people who, according to an evangelical poll, have pulled away from “present day Christianity” because they see much of it as being anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical.  And they’re pretty firm in those opinions.  Eighty-five to ninety-one percent feel that way.

Jones cites Russel Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, who has suggested it is time for Christians, as Jones puts it, “to relinquish their status as defenders of a lost consensus” (on such things as gay marriage) and “rally around a more limited movement to maintain their traditional view of marriage within their own communities.”  Jones says Moore’s position is a beginning of the “religious liberty” movement that “individuals should be able to carry religious objections from their private life into their public roles as service providers, business owners, and even elected officials.”   He refers to the movement as “a desperate attempt to fight the lost war by other means.”

Jones also looks at the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, desegregation of churches and of communities, racial justice (“why is desegregation so difficult?” he asks), and other factors on which WCA is divided and trying to maintain old values in a world that is creating new ones.

So what’s the answer?   He digs into Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’ On Death and Dying: What the Dying have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy, and Their Own Families, published in 1969.  She identifies the five stages of grief that people go through when facing an end: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  Jones says those stages are useful in understanding what is happening with White Christian America, both mainliners and evangelicals.  In his forty-page final chapter, he examines how both branches of WCA are dealing with those five stages.

Jones says mainline Christians are moving—although not smoothly—toward “a distinctive theological and ecclesiastical vision, driven by the need to come to terms with the death of White Christian America,” while evangelicals are divided. One branch acknowledges “their vision of a robust white evangelical world will have to be tempered” while still resisting “the full implications of its demise.”  He cites Baptist minister and professor of Christian ethics David Gushee, who appeals to evangelicals to abandon “past conspiracy theories, demagoguery, single-issue voting, partisan seductions, mudslinging, and God-and-country conflations and confusions” and to take part in a fully pluralistic society without being tempted to reach for (as Jones puts it), “domination and sectarianism, each of which is driven by nostalgia for a lost Christian America.”

Jones sees a future for Christianity in shaping the character of our country.  But he says it must recognize its past failings and its new possibilities in a world that will be shaped by today’s younger generation.

As National Catholic Reporter writer Maureen Fiedler put it last month, “Welcoming racial and religious diversity is now a political imperative as well as a religious calling.” (

After reading this book, we think we understand the trends that have led the Missouri legislature’s majority to become embroiled in some of the hot-button issues it spends too much time working on while ignoring greater issues that affect the lives of our population as a whole.  But we also realize it is unrealistic to think that this year’s elections will produce any significant change in the attitudes of our Missouri lawmakers.   Jones’ book suggests there is hope for an eventual realization that resisting the coming changes to our society out of a “nostalgia for a lost Christian America,” rather than focusing on shaping those changes in a positive and inclusive manner, might be politically profitable in the short run but sad and wasted effort in the face of inevitability.

Depending on your faith perspective, you might or might not enjoy reading this book.  But we think it will add a dimension to your understanding of where we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going, particularly in the proposed laws we’re likely to see in the legislature next year.

Robert P. Jones, The End of White Christian America, New York, Simon & Schuster, 2016.  309 pages.

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